What if NBC hadn’t given the 10 p.m. hour to Jay Leno?

This week HitFix is revisiting some of the key turning points in recent entertainment history and considering what would have happened if history had turned a bit differently. What if…?
In 2004, NBC announced a plan for the orderly transition of “Tonight Show” power between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien for 2009. Everybody seemed happy. But there were two catches: The first? Jay Leno didn’t actually want to leave and Jay Leno was still ruling his time period and making NBC lots of money. So Jeff Zucker came up with a brilliant idea: Five nights a week of “The Jay Leno Show” airing at 10 p.m. Leaving out the irrelevance of Saturdays, NBC has 18 hours of primetime and they decided to give five of ’em to Jay Leno. The theory was that original episodes of “The Jay Leno Show” might not beat originals on ABC or CBS, but they would do OK and then perform even better against inevitable repeats. It did not work out that way. After nearly 18 million people tuned in for the premiere, the numbers dwindled rapidly and, by winter, the audience was under 5 million. With Conan O’Brien struggling on “The Tonight Show,” NBC had to pull the plug on “The Jay Leno Show,” send Jay back to 11:35 and, refusing a demotion to 12:05, Conan O’Brien left the network. Rarely has a network worked so hard to bottom out. But…
What if NBC hadn’t given the 10 p.m. hour to Jay Leno?
Three things that wouldn’t have happened:
1) NBC would have been magically fixed. Because “The Jay Leno Show” was one of the great disasters in broadcasting history, it’s become a convenient scapegoat or centerpiece for all “Look how pathetic NBC is” mockery. The point that’s worth remembering is that NBC was only considering five nights a week of Leno (and Oprah before that) because of how dire the network straits were. Check out NBC’s 2008-2009 schedule and you get ignominious duds like “Knight Rider,” “My Own Worst Enemy,” “Kath & Kim” and “Crusoe,” plus slightly more defensible (but no more successful) failures like “Kings.” NBC was essentially cleaning house in 2009-2010 and the network never could have afforded to launch another five new dramas even on the off chance that one might have been magical, so what you’d have gotten instead of five hours of Leno was lots and lots of Howie Mandel, with and without briefcases. In that circumstance, NBC would have burnt America out on Howie Mandel, which probably would have changed the fate and fortunes of “AGT.” But Jay Leno is *not* the reason NBC sucked in 2009-2010. Or not the only reason.
2) The Team Conan pity party and tour. This could have gone either way. Conan O’Brien was doing good work on “The Tonight Show,” but the ratings were plummeting. Maybe NBC lets Conan plummet for a while and, eventually, when he has to be relieved of his duties, nobody could claim that he got a bum deal. That means no #TeamCoco hipsters and no sold-out nationwide tour and no “Conan” on TBS, at least not immediately, which would have also probably reduced TBS’ comedy footprint and may or may not have meant no “Cougar Town” or the various comedy originals, because TBS might not have wanted to pair those shows with George Lopez. OR ELSE… Audiences might have discovered that Conan was producing a good show and “The Tonight Show” might have rebounded from its slump. Neither of those things could happen with Leno waiting in the wings and licking his chops.
3) “Southland” goes to TNT. We can speculate all day about which NBC bubble dramas died because the network was giving five hours to Jay Leno. “Life” and “Medium” are the two dramas that maybe might have stuck around a little longer if NBC had had more real estate. You could also go to NBC’s development from that spring and highlight one or two dramas — Katee Sackoff’s “Lost & Found,” maybe? — which, under different circumstances, might have looked promising. But “Southland”? That’s a sure thing. NBC gave the police drama an early pick-up, then scheduled it for a nebulous Friday home, delayed it and finally cancelled it because there just wasn’t a place for it anymore. Without “The Jay Leno Show,” “Southland” would have stuck around on NBC for at least another year. Probably its ratings would have continued to dwindle and it would have been cancelled. However, with a two-year track record, there’s almost no chance TNT would have thought “Southland” was worth rescuing. So if you loved the last two or three seasons of “Southland,” thank Jay Leno.
Three things that might have happened:
1) A series of Jay Leno specials become surprisingly successful for NBC. It’s 2013 and NBC is under six months from another late-night changeover and, once again, NBC is talking about wanting Jay Leno to remain around. What if, in 2008, NBC had said to Jay, “We’d like you to be a regular part of our schedule, but not *this* regular”? What if NBC had, for example, given Jay Leno a single week of primetime specials in December, a “Jay Leno and NBC Celebrate Christmas” Week, featuring Jay’s old “Tonight Show” bits and visits from his favorite stars, all set to air in a week with reduced original programming from the other networks. If 18 million people tuned in for the start of “The Jay Leno Show,” maybe a special Christmas week would have averaged… 10 million? That’s a big success for NBC and it ends without Jay outstaying his welcome. Maybe NBC gives Jay another week in February. Or, better still, the network waits til May. In the interim, Jay behaves himself and helps to encourage Conan on “The Tonight Show.” Maybe Jay Leno Specials become something that viewers actually begin to look forward to and become key pillars of NBC’s programming, without overstaying their welcome. Jay gets full creative control over those specials and he’s happy. NBC gets reasonable ratings and NBC is happy. Conan doesn’t get kneecapped and he’s happy. Everybody’s happy!